IN­TER­NAL AF­FAIRS

A life­time ab­sorb­ing cloak and dag­ger drama has pre­pared Graeme Blun­dell for the latest con­spir­acy the­ory se­ries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

I’ VE al­ways loved a good con­spir­acy thriller, eas­ily sucked in by the con­flict of se­crecy and spies, hon­our and be­trayal, the dark­ness in the shad­ows. In the sub­ver­sion- ob­sessed late 1950s I dis­cov­ered Bri­tons John Buchan, Ge­of­frey House­hold, Gra­ham Greene and Eric Am­bler. I was fix­ated on trade craft: clan­des­tine meet­ings, dead let­ter drops, sur­veil­lance traps and how to hide mes­sages in a boiled egg.

Spy mad, I read on through the more am­bigu­ous, bleaker ’ 70s and ’ 80s, when de­cent agents were be­trayed and com­pro­mised by treach­ery in the top lev­els of the es­pi­onage es­tab­lish­ment.

Con­spir­acy thrillers were their own film genre in the late ’ 60s and ’ 70s, won­der­ful flashes of para­noid bleak­ness such as The Par­al­lax View , All the Pres­i­dent’s Men, The Con­ver­sa­tion and The Manchurian Can­di­date . Any pro­tag­o­nist who stum­bled on ev­i­dence of con­spir­a­cies deep within the up­per cir­cles of the US gov­ern­ment and the cor­po­rate es­tab­lish­ment found them­selves in ter­ri­ble jeop­ardy.

Th­ese movies drama­tis­ing the idea of con­spir­acy fan­tasies and in­sti­tu­tional dis­trust were dark and un­set­tling, and pro­foundly plea­sur­able. Even come­dies such as television’s Get Smart were con­spir­acist, mak­ing pointed, al­most sub­ver­sive, com­ments about many po­lit­i­cal is­sues.

In one episode, framed by an im­age of a mush­room cloud, Maxwell Smart ( Don Adams) tells his part­ner, the gor­geous 99 ( Bar­bara Fel­don), the US should in­sist on ev­ery other na­tion out­law­ing nu­clear weapons. ‘‘ What if they don’t?’’ she says. ‘‘ Then we may have to blast them,’’ Max replies. ‘‘ That’s the only way to keep peace in the world.’’

In the real world there were po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions and scan­dals, and the hated Viet­nam War. It was easy to be­lieve in the ex­is­tence of a Right­ist con­spir­acy within the es­tab­lish­ment aimed at de­stroy­ing any­one who threat­ened the power of the mil­i­tary- in­dus­trial com­plex.

Fol­low­ing the Septem­ber 11, 2001, ter­ror at­tacks the genre has come in from the cold; ev­ery sec­ond novel I read or TV drama I watch presents dark con­spir­a­to­rial vi­sions highly sus­pi­cious of our po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions.

The latest en­ter­tain­ment in our para­noia re­vival is the BBC’s The State Within , a com­plex six- hour tale of ter­ror­ism and in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics set mostly in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Slick and highly en­ter­tain­ing, Lizzie Mick­ery and Daniel Per­ci­val’s fran­tic thriller is just the show to trig­ger a few more sus­pi­cions about the war in Iraq. As if we need any.

A witty, sharply clever script works from a per­cep­tive cyn­i­cism about the se­cre­tive use of state power and a less than hys­ter­i­cal ab­hor­rence of abuses of the USA PA­TRIOT Act and witch-

Thrills and kills: Ja­son Isaacs as Mark Bry­don, cen­tre, flanked by Sharon Gless and Ben Daniels

hunts for Is­lamist ter­ror­ists. For those of us who grew up on sto­ries about why gov­ern­ments can never be trusted, this is un­miss­able en­ter­tain­ment. We’ve got moles, suit­case bombs, as­sas­si­na­tions, se­cret agen­cies, dead bod­ies, a clever ex­plo­ration of how big busi­ness ma­nip­u­lates coun­tries into wars, and even good guys who seem like bad guys.

This beau­ti­fully crafted pot boiler is some­how held to­gether by a to­tally con­fus­ing plot- line that be­gins with at least four seem­ingly un­re­lated nar­ra­tive threads. A Bri­tish flight ex­plodes as it’s tak­ing off from Dulles in­ter­na­tional air­port, show­er­ing the Rolls- Royce of Bri­tish am­bas­sador Mark Bry­don ( Ja­son Isaacs) with de­bris be­fore he in­ex­pli­ca­bly leaps out to de­liver some clumsy first aid by the side of the belt­way. A shocked Wash­ing­ton quickly dis­cov­ers it’s a ter­ror­ist ex­plo­sion, the bomber a Bri­tish Mus­lim.

Ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately, Bri­tish Asians can be de­tained with­out charge; Bri­tish para­trooper and Falk­lands war hero Luke Gard­ner ( Len­nie James) awaits ex­e­cu­tion on Florida’s death row; and, in Vir­ginia, Gard­ner’s for­mer brothers- inarms pre­pare a private mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion or­gan­ised by a Bri­tish mil­i­tary con­trac­tor work­ing for an Amer­i­can pay­mas­ter. An­other plot- line fol­lows a dis­graced for­mer Bri­tish am­bas­sador ( Alex Jen­nings), a diplo­matic un­touch­able, op­posed to hu­man rights abuses and sanc­tioned tor­ture, who hap­pens to be a close friend of Bry­don.

More dark se­crets, death and be­trayal. The only things miss­ing are those boiled egg mes­sages. At least I think so; I may have missed them. This genre, even at the level at which this show works, re­quires sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief and a will­ing­ness to sub­mit to the tor­tu­ous un­rav­el­ling of plot and the in­tro­duc­tion of count­less char­ac­ters. Watch for the fe­ro­cious US sec­re­tary of defence, Lynne Warner, played by Sharon Gless as a Hil­lary Clin­ton doll chan­nelling Don­ald Rums­feld. ‘‘ We’re pay­ing that ass­hole $ 100 mil­lion a year to scratch his balls,’’ she says of a cen­tral Asian dic­ta­tor in whose coun­try the bomber may have been trained.

The act­ing is strong. It should be, as not much is re­quired. The plot is pro­pelled in such a jagged, fast- cut­ting style that the di­a­logue be­comes em­blem­atic; con­ver­sa­tions sim­ply flag posts to keep it mov­ing.

Flint- jawed Isaacs, still recog­nis­able as Lu­cius Mal­foy, the in­flu­en­tial hench­man of Lord Volde­mort from the Harry Pot­ter movies, is a sym­pa­thetic, re­luc­tant hero. Ben Daniels as the Bri­tish coun­sel­lor of ex­ter­nal af­fairs, es­sen­tially Bry­don’s Mr Fixit, does the ques­tion­able mo­tives sub­text with just the right Machi­avel­lian charm. And James is bluntly charis­matic as the con­demned para­trooper on death row, with a chill­ing abil­ity to milk the close- ups within which he largely per­forms. Michael Of­fer di­rects the early episodes with such ex­per­tise that, baf­fled, you just fol­low along, with lit­tle idea of what is hap­pen­ing but en­grossed by the sen­su­al­ity of the sto­ry­telling. He loves big hov­er­ing close- ups, tense, highly sub­jec­tive cam­era work and kalei­do­scop­i­cally cut ac­tion se­quences.

There is a won­der­ful myth of in­ter­nal con­spir­acy at work in shows such as this, a quasi­moral and spir­i­tual vi­sion of some­thing go­ing on in the world just out of our reach. It’s a no­tion of ar­che­typal power and play­ful­ness that is won­der­fully en­ter­tain­ing. ‘‘ I used to love those dou­ble- dou­ble games,’’ an old re­searcher says in John le Carre’s Smi­ley’s Peo­ple . ‘‘ All hu­man life was there.’’

The State Within, ABC1 at 8.30pm, Thurs­day.

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